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a short story
a substance flinty and unforgiving, especially when it falls off the back of a scrap metal truck in a solid lump the size of an iron or a toaster, or some other small household appliance, and hurtles down the freeway toward a flimsy foreign economy car, bouncing the way the driver--lulled by rain and the steady swish swish of windshield wipers and the uncompromising glare of headlights in the rearview mirror and the drone of her father's nasal voice and the surprising monochromity of her busy middle-aged-single-woman's life--never expected a heavy chunk of iron to bounce.
It flew off the back of the truck and scuttered down the ribbon of asphalt like a pinball ringing up points. I’m going to have to quit my job, Mary was thinking, when she saw it coming. Her molars clenched. Which way to dodge the chunk of iron? Did the semi coming up on the right lag far enough behind to brake if she swerved into its lane, should she slow down from sixty-five to minimize impact or speed up to gain distance in front of the truck? Her mind accelerated; time slowed.
Rain buffeted the little car. The sky blackened. Mary’s work boot glued itself to the gas pedal. Her wrinkled father in the passenger seat interrupted his commentary about the texture of the darkening rain to shriek, "Watch out, Mother!" as the iron flew under the front wheels, clattering like pots and pans falling from the kitchen cupboard.
White knuckles gripped the wheel. The metal cocoon shuddered, skidded and veered across the reflecting bumps and into the lane of the semi, its front grill expanding in the rearview mirror, pursuing like the snapping jaws of a waffle-iron.
an appliance. Manufactured for taking the wrinkles out of clothes. For some reason it has become the convention to wear smooth clothes instead of naturally rumpled clothes straight from a dryer’s tossing. Why should we prefer our clothes smooth when we like textured walls, permed hair, craggy male faces, distressed pine furniture, grid patterns in our breakfast cakes?
Mary’s clothes always looked lived-in; ironing was a skill she never mastered. She excels instead at grading and measuring dirt--something her Mother spent her life trying to banish from the house. When Mary was young mother pulled her many times to the basement and pushed her unwilling fngers around the iron’s handle. They began with her father's uniform shirts. Blue yoke first, blue collar and cuffs, then blue sleeves, finally the blue shirtback and front. After Mary’d ironed a few shirts, the appliance awkward in her hand and steam searing her face like a blown and hissing radiator, mother took them away and smiled and did them all over again.
Was Dad's blue shirt ironed smooth on the day the Sea-Land Freight semi rear-ended them? Ironing was one of the chores Mary tried to get the help to do since her mother died. She couldn’t even try do it herself, she was always exhausted when she got home, and filthy from tromping at the sides of new highways with the survey crews.
To make the appointment with the Alzheimer specialist she’d left work early that day, sent the nurse home, stripped off her coveralls, washed up, rain splattered the window with big blotches like bird droppings.
He sat in the den chair, a game blaring on television.
“Hey, Dad, it’s Mary,” she said. “What’s the score?”
“Ah, Mary, Mary. Score? No score. I, uhhhh…Mother not home yet?”
There was nothing else to say but “No,” so she said it.
I’ll have to stay home with him full time, she thought. He’s more confused every moment. Sometimes it’s like he’s dreaming. I can afford it, being single all these years, and I’ll save on the help. But. Inside with wrinkles instead of outdoors making straight, smooth roads.
“Look at that rain,” said Dad, “how it shimmers like purple silk.”
“We have to get going to the doctor’s now,” she said.
“It’s so dark in here suddenly.”
“It’s so dark, and that light switch near the door isn’t working.” He planted his feet and thrust his thin arms against the chair. “Where’s my toolbox?”
Mary steadied him as they walked out to the car, her hands on his shoulders to keep him from turning. “The switch is fine. I’ll fix it later. I fixed it long ago, don’t trouble yourself.”
“Mother will be wanting it fixed,” he said as she eased him into the passenger seat. “She likes things nice and bright.” He smelled of talc and Ben-Gay. Under the blue cotton were bones, brittle bones, as if the material was his only skin.
His shirt was wrinkle-free that day. Or at least it started out that way. The car spun around: a circle of slick whirling highway, fields of scrub brush, leering semi grill, the long snake of oncoming traffic backed by sentinels of midnight fir, then again the black asphalt. Shards of blood-red tail lights scattered; they slid with a wrenching shrieking shuddering squeal. Singed rubber. The thump into the wet crease of ditch--much deeper than regulation depth, Mary thought in an instant of clarity--running alongside the road. The flip over was as quick as a pancake, as unbelievable as a lump of iron careening down a highway. After the final sagging and the stench of gasoline, father’s shirt was probably as wrinkled as her own.
a type of will, a sometime strength buried under rainbows and fragility, the color of rust. Not in truck grills, kitchen gadgets or thin plates welded to the frames of economical cars, but in wizened men with long lives full of tomboy daughters and wives called Mother, of ordered and reordered households and slashes of time, smooth and rough, which define the list of colors in a life.
upside down waffled between seat and hood.
in the sliding rain, through a hiss of soldering flame, the wrenching cries of a wreck dismembered, when a woman shivers in a blanket, peering through guilt and wet and her own clasped hands. As the red and amber flashes, the surgeons shake their heads, the gurney clatters down the endless antiseptic hallway.
Iron pushes back
against the surprised hand of the physiotherapist and the trembling and thankful hand of the daughter, which resembles, more than she ever knew possible, the gentle hand of her mother.
that in all of us will take the wheel and decide for us that now, or not now, is the time to skid and screech and tumble over and over and over and over to a stop.